Author Archives: pine717

Severed!

I love the Vita, but I often find myself only really getting around to playing it when I have some travel time and I want something to take with me.  I think part of the reason I do this is because exciting new releases for the Vita are often spread so thin on the calendar that I don’t really feel any pressure to get around to anything when it comes out.  This is usually reinforced by the fact that a lot of Vita titles are ports of games that had already been out on existing platforms for a while, so there’s a chance I’ve already played them.  Furthermore, a lot of these ports often end up running poorly on the Vita, making it more attractive to play them elsewhere, even though I like to play games handheld.  It’s a very rare occurrence for a game to release first on Vita, and offer arguably the best experience on that platform.

Severed 02.jpg

I recently discovered, though, that one such game that excels on Vita is Severed, a first person dungeon exploration game by the same team that created Guacamelee.  It originally released exclusively for the Vita last year, but since then found its way to 3DS and Wii U, as well.  Taking place in a Mesoamerican-inspired fantasy world, it pairs an oddly vibrant art style with a contrastingly gloomy and ominous atmosphere.  The combat system is probably the most unique aspect of Severed as it relies entirely upon the Vita’s often underused touchscreen.

While exploring dungeons, enemies appear as glowing white orbs, and combat is initiated when the player moves onto spaces occupied by said entities.  When the main character, Sasha, incurs upon an enemy party in such a way, the player is surrounded by the group of monsters, while facing only one at a given time.  The foes outside of the player’s first person view are indicated as icons at the bottom of the screen that keep check of information such as their health, buffs, and status of their charging attacks. The d-pad/face buttons are used to switch focus between enemies, but the rest of combat is carried out on the Vita’s touchscreen.  When the current enemy in focus reveals their weak point, the player does damage by slashing their finger back and forth across the vulnerable spot.  Severed’s battles are real time, not turn-based, which means the faster the player can swipe their finger back and forth on an enemy, the more damage Sasha will deal.  

Severed 03.jpg

Conversely, enemy attacks can be countered by swiping against the motion of their attack, so, for instance, if an enemy slashes at Sasha, swiping in the opposite direction against the motion of their claws  will negate any damage dealt to the player.  The icons at the bottom of the screen signal if an enemy off-view is about to attack, and monitoring these indicators and performing successful counters is critical to success in the game, since Sasha’s health is never large enough to take more than a handful of hits each encounter.  The game has a decent variety of enemies, each which have different attack patterns and quirks that managed to keep me on my toes and ensured battle never became a particularly tedious affair.  

In a lot of ways, Severed sort of reminds me of a game from the heyday of the Nintendo DS.  There was a period of time in the DS’s early life when there was just a huge amount of titles making innovative use of the touchscreen.  Since those days, touch-based gaming has kind of fallen by the wayside.  I can’t think of many 3DS or Wii U games that really made heavy use of the touchscreen element in an essential way.  There have been some really great touch-based games on phones, like The Room series and Lara Croft Go, but for the most part I find really exciting releases on such mobile platforms to be very few and far between.  But while it’s disappointing to see this side of gaming whither, Severed at least manages to do something new and interesting in this area.

Severed 01.jpg

Unfortunately, there’s a slight ergonomic toll inflicted by Severed.  I find the easiest way to play the game is to hold the Vita with one hand, gripping the middle of the system with my palm, which leaves the other hand free to use the touchscreen and face buttons.  This method works fairly well and isn’t nearly as awkward as it sounds.  The problem really comes from the rapid swiping motions the game encourages the player to make.  Like I said, combat is real time, meaning the faster the player can move, the more effective they will be.  So for instance, some enemies open up weak points for limited windows of time, during which I found myself swiping as furiously as I could to inflict maximum damage before the opportunity closed.  Situations like this had a bad affect on my wrist, and often I would find my hand getting a little stiff and sore after only a small (30 minutes to 1 hour) play session.  I don’t want to leave the impression that I was in excruciating physical pain or anything, it was a mild discomfort, but it’s probably the only real negative I found to the game.

In recent years there have been a lot of RPGs I’ve found myself getting bored with after I’ve sunk in significant playtime due to how tedious their repetitive battle systems can become.  Fortunately, I felt like Severed managed to dodge this sort of fatigue, partly due to its relative brevity, but also because the game does a good job of continuously adding new wrinkles to the battle system that keep it from getting stale across the duration of Sasha’s quest.  The game has a fairly decent variety of enemies that it rolls out, each which require their own strategies to counter, but it also introduces some new mechanics that require the player to continuously adapt their play style.  

Severed 04.jpg

It’s a bit difficult to give an overview of Severed’s story due to the hazy and cryptic way in which the game opens.  It’s not Dark Souls level of vaguery, but the whole game definitely has a dream-like quality that implores the player to use their own imagination and intuition to fill in the blanks it leaves.  Here is the best explanation I can put together for how the game opens:  A young warrior named Sasha arrives in a strange, nightmarish realm to find her missing family that were abducted in a struggle that left Sasha without her left arm (hence the title).  She is guided by a shadowy, almost demonic figure of ambiguous intention and origin to set out on a quest through the nightmare world to discover their ultimate fate.

RPGs tend to be games about heroes who embark on epic journeys to counter existential crises that threaten the entire world, but Severed is a deeply personal story about loss and survivor’s guilt.  Sasha is no savior of mankind, merely a young woman on a hopeless quest to save her loved ones, nothing more.  Additionally, her journey is a solitary one with only a few recurring NPCs occasionally interjecting her dungeon diving.  Yet despite the much more humble stakes of Severed, I still found myself thoroughly invested in Sasha’s unfolding tale up through its poignant and bittersweet conclusion.  And while it might not be a game about saving the world, I still found the final boss fight to be an epic struggle against a terrifying foe.

Severed is a great game for the Vita.  It’s not super long, only about 6 hours, which is probably just as long as it needs to be to not outstay its welcome.  It’s kind of sad that it hasn’t quite gotten as much attention as its predecessor, Guacamelee, but I think that’s probably due to the touch-based gameplay restricting the platforms it can be available on.  Regardless, I feel like the team should be commended for taking a risk to create a touchscreen-focused experience.  It goes a long way to disprove the popular theory that games that use controls besides the standard DualShock/Xbox controller or mouse and keyboard can only be empty gimmicks.

 

My Top 5 Wii U Games

The Wii U ended up being a surprisingly forward thinking platform for Nintendo.  Although its central conceit of introducing second screen gameplay hasn’t gone very far, it managed to introduce a few exciting new series to Nintendo’s stable that pushed what we all thought the company was capable of.  Games like Splatoon and Mario Maker marked incredibly successful forays into online multiplayer functionality and community building, while established series like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. received a long tail of support and substantial new content post-release.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to look at Wii U as a low point for the company, especially after the obscenely successful Wii.  Some of Nintendo’s best series have gone missing or fell flat on the machine.  No Metroid, no Animal Crossing, a lackluster Paper Mario game, a Zelda game delayed all the way to the launch of its successor, a Star Fox title that baffled a lot of gamers, sporadic and inconsistent Virtual Console support.  The Wii U has definitely had some high-highs, but also some low-lows.

In the end, I enjoyed the Wii U, even if it did sit idle for months at a time.  Now with the Switch finally out in the wild, I’ve decided to highlight my favorite 5 games of the Wii U (in no particular order).


 

Captain Toad Cover.png

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

Captain Toad was a smaller Wii U title that doesn’t get as much credit as I think it’s due.  This game is a spin-off of the Captain Toad levels from Super Mario 3D World, but I think it actually managed to be something far more interesting and imaginative than the those small bonus stages in its progenitor.  Treasure Tracker differentiates itself from 3D World by focusing on puzzle platforming that tasks the player with getting the main characters (Captain Toad and Toadette) across small 3D levels without the ability to jump.  The game displays a huge range of imagination across its many tiny but dense levels, similar to the kind of creativity and diversity that you would find in a mainline 3D Mario game.

3D World Cover.jpg

Super Mario 3D World

Although I think I prefer the Super Mario Galaxy games, Super Mario 3D World (and Land on the 3DS) are undeniably great Mario games.  While the sidescrolling New Super Mario Bros. series has gotten stale, 3D World lives up to the imagination and inventiveness of its 3D Mario predecessors.  The simple fun and wonderment of this game was a huge source of brightness in my life when I originally played it.  I wish I had more thoughtful things to say about it, but it’s just pure, uncompromised Mario goodness, the kind of which is a reminder why this character has been the de facto mascot of gaming for over 30 years running.

Mario Maker Cover.jpg

Super Mario Maker

I liked the first two New Super Mario Bros. games, especially the Wii one, but like a lot of other gamers, I thought the series quickly started to stagnate, with the 3DS and Wii U games being less than inspiring.  I was beginning to think that classic sidescrolling Mario had run its course again, but then came one of the most impressive games I’ve played in many years, Super Mario Maker.  For a company as stubborn and old-fashioned as Nintendo, Mario Maker was a huge surprise with its focus on online community and user created content, two things Nintendo rarely exhibits an interest in.  I had a ton of fun playing community levels, but also I was surprised at how much my imagination was stoked while creating my own levels in the editor.

Mario Kart 8 Cover.jpg

Mario Kart 8

Mario Kart 8 may very well be number 1 amongst Mario Kart titles for me.  I think in trying to tone down the chaoticness of Mario Kart Wii, Mario Kart 7 ended up feeling rather boring and uninspired.  Mario Kart 8, on the other hand, managed to find the perfect balance between creatively-designed courses and combat and well-balanced racing challenge.  Also, building on what I said about Super Mario Maker, Mario Kart 8 was surprisingly modern and forward-thinking for a Nintendo game and featured a competently designed online mode and DLC packs that actually provided substantial content to the game.

SS4 Wii U.png

Super Smash Bros. 4

I often drag the Wii U home for the holidays to see family, because we typically plug a lot of time into Mario Kart together (as we did with the Wii before it).  All that changed, however, after I introduced Super Smash Bros. 4.  At first, my sisters were really unsure about this mess of a fighting game, but it didn’t take long for them to get hooked.  Featuring a ton of great characters from across Nintendo’s history, like Bowser Jr., Ike, and Little Mac, but also a few not so great characters, like Villager and Dark Pit, Smash Bros. is an amazing gift to Nintendo fandom, but also just a fundamentally good game for friends and family from one of the few companies that still puts a lot of effort into high-quality local multiplayer games.


Well, after writing this list, I’m suddenly realizing that it’s basically all games featuring Mario or the Mario universe.  Of course, there were a few non-Mario games that I came close to adding to the list, namely Splatoon deserves credit.  The two Zelda remakes (Wind Waker and Twilight Princess) were also pretty good, but I would rather not count remakes in a list of like this.  The releases have been thin over the years, but I’m hoping they’ve been saving up for the Switch.  Definitely, I’m excited for Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Splatoon 2, and I’m curious about ARMS.  Even though the Wii U had its troubles, I’m cautiously excited for Switch.  Nintendo has its ups and downs, but they’ve always managed to maintain consistent quality over an impressively long history.

Kirby’s Star Stacker!

The final months of the year always mean handheld gaming for me due to the travel that time of year always necessitates.  I always try to load up my 3DS with a few games to get me through the season.  Back in November, Nintendo was having a sale on a handful of Virtual Console titles, and I decided to snag Kirby’s Star Stacker for the measly price of $1.49.  I have mixed feelings about Virtual Console.  I would love to load up my 3DS with a bunch of classic games, but knowing that these purchases won’t transfer over to future Nintendo platforms is strongly off-putting.  Consequently, I tend to only buy things when they go on sale for super cheap (which they rarely do considering Nintendo’s aversion to sales).

Star Stacker 1.png

Star Stacker is a Game Boy falling block puzzle game of the kind that was so prominent back in those days.  In this entry of the genre, falling from the top of the screen are dimeric blocks that are composed of either star tiles (or other special tiles) or animal tiles featuring one of Kirby’s three animal friends (the hamster, owl, and fish from Kirby’s Dreamland 2).  The goal of the game is to specifically eliminate sequences of star tiles, which is done by sandwiching any number of them between two matching animal tiles.  For each star tile that is eliminated, a counter on the right side of the screen is reduced, and the round is cleared when the counter hits zero.  The counter is meant to be indicative of King Dedede’s HP, and his face hovers above it while displaying a range of emotions in reaction to the player’s current condition.  In addition, any time two or more matching animal tiles touch each other directly, they are eliminated from the screen, but these do not affect the counter.  In later rounds of the game, special tiles come into play, like bombs that wipe out a row of tiles when triggered.  

As a falling block puzzler,  Star Stacker’s main mode is more akin to Dr. Mario than the archetype’s progenitor, Tetris.  Star Stacker is composed of discrete stages that begin with a preset configuration of blocks and end when King Dedede’s HP has been depleted.  Thus, stages in Star Stacker are more like stages in Dr. Mario where the player has to clear a preset configuration of the virus enemies to progress, as opposed to Tetris where the entire game is one continuous session and the stage number rolls over when a certain score threshold has been met.  I think I tend to prefer Star Stacker and Dr. Mario’s style, as completing handcrafted stages gives me a better sense of progression.  Usually, I don’t care much for games that are purely score attack, especially when there are no online hooks to foster competition.   

Star Stacker initially offers the player four difficulty modes (Normal, Hard, Very Hard, and Super Hard) each with their own unique sets of stages.  Despite their formidable names, these modes aren’t especially challenging.  The thing about this part of Star Stacker is that it’s actually really easy to get lucky and wipe out huge portions of Dedede’s HP in one move.  There were many many times when I was on the edge of filling up the screen, but then, out of nowhere, I triggered a long chain reaction that that wiped out a huge number of blocks and slid me to victory.

Star Stacker 2.png

In this first part of Star Stacker, it’s just really easy to “accidentally” set off massive chain reactions.  I think it’s because it doesn’t take much to make a match in this game.  There are only three animal tiles, and it only takes two adjacent to each other to make a match, so the probability of matches being formed as part of a chain is very high.  This is exacerbated by the fact that, as a reward, after each step of a chain, the game will randomly dump clusters of transient star blocks that can make matching sequences like normal star blocks, and only exist for the duration of the chain reaction (they disappear afterwards).  I realize I’m probably not explaining that last concept well, but I’m just mentioning it to illustrate that chains in the game tend to be self-propagating, which makes it easy to wipe out huge chunks of Dedede’s HP in one swoop.  This adds a huge element of luck (which strongly favors the player) to the game.  Personally, my brain is really only fast enough predict chain reactions up to the second, maybe third, step in the chain, so any additional matches I get past that is pure luck.

While even Super Hard mode seems like a breeze, the game shows its true colors once this last “normal” mode has been beat, and the secret Insane mode becomes unlocked.  This mode is where things get tough.  Insane mode possesses 50 stages (far longer than any other mode) and is arguably where the real game begins.  I had initially been a bit disappointed by how simple and easy the game had been up until that point, and then my opinion immediately did a complete 180, as the game became incredibly challenging.  Especially the back half of this mode is super difficult, and some levels can take well over an hour to put to rest.  This is due to the sheer perfection the game begins to demand from the player, as a single mistake can completely ruin your chance to succeed.  For me, round 42 was particularly overwhelming.  I estimate it took me three to four hours just to beat that one.    

The difficulty spike in this stretch of the game is due mostly to the way the blocks are arranged at the start of each round.  Often times, these stages start with a good chunk of the screen filled with special blocks that need to be “sandwiched” by the animal tiles twice to be eliminated, and the difficulty of clearing these things can get each level off to a rough start, especially as these rounds tend not to begin with many animal tiles already on screen.  In addition, King Dedede’s HP really begins to balloon, which makes each level quite a bit longer, and thus the potential for critical mistakes to occur much more likely.

The gruelling nature of Insane mode really started to get to me after a while.  I found that finishing off the final gauntlet of levels often required a lot of luck and incredible precision.  I really started to reconsider whether my mission to beat the game was worthwhile.  Considering the many hours I put into getting to the end of this game, I probably should have given up on it and spent that play time elsewhere.  But, I really can’t deny that the basic matching mechanics of Star Stacker are incredibly compelling (to the point of compulsion).  Add to that the fact that I just reached a point where my pride and competitiveness eventually awoke and wouldn’t let me let myself be beaten by this game, and I ended up sticking it out to the very brutal end.

 
I guess I have a strong love/hate relationship with the game, as cliche as that sounds.  The central mechanic is incredibly fun, but the wonky difficulty tuning that swings from too easy to too hard created a lot of frustration.  Ultimately, it’s just one of those puzzle games that’s just hard to put down, like the original Tetris or Lumines.  

My Games of 2016

Games of 2016.png

I’m afraid I didn’t have the most productive year of gaming in 2016.  I keep a spreadsheet of the games I play and beat, and I only managed to finish 26 games in 2016.  For comparison, I beat 32 games in 2015 and a monstrous 53 games in 2014.  And while twenty six games might seem like a lot of gaming, the number is heavily boosted by all of the indie games I play, since a lot of those tend to take only a few hours to complete.  The year 2016 presented a lot of shifts in both my personal and professional lives that have left me with a lot less time to devote to gaming, and probably 2017 will be about the same.  I’m going to have to become a lot more disciplined in managing my free time so that I’m still able to pursue all of my interests, gaming included.

For these posts, I usually list out five games that were the highlight of the year for me (and were also new releases in the year), but this time I decided to cut it down to three.  I could probably add two more, but there was nothing else released this year which I played and felt extremely passionate about.  There’s still a lot of games from 2016 that I really want to get around to playing/finishing including Dark Souls III, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Final Fantasy XV, and The Last Guardian, and I feel a bit bad about not being able to consider those for this list.  By most accounts, there were a lot of great titles this year, I just didn’t have the time to play most of them.

I know I’ve let this blog wither a bit for the past couple of months, but I’m hoping I can get it back on track soon.  I want to thank everyone who’s read and supported my blog over 2016 and even before.  I’ve been able to get to know a lot of cool people through this blog and WordPress.  I’m sorry I haven’t been liking and commenting on as many posts lately, but I hope I will be back regularly in the blogging community soon.

Overwatch

maxresdefault.jpg

Overwatch was unquestionably *the* game of the year for me.  My interests tend to lean more toward single-player stuff, but every now and then I get deep into an online game, and Starsiege: Tribes and Team Fortress 2 are among my favorite games of all time.  It’s been quite a few years since I’ve gotten hooked on an online multiplayer game, and I think the last one was the mostly obscure Gotham City Impostors in 2012.  

For someone who was really into Team Fortress 2, Overwatch feels like its natural successor.  Overwatch follows out the line of evolution started by TF2 by introducing a diverse cast of characters that have not just unique abilities and strengths, but unique personalities that give the game a charisma and appeal that is usually not seen in online shooters.  But while Overwatch is a game built on the individuality of its characters, it’s also a game with a heavy focus on teamwork, where each player must utilize their chosen character’s strengths to complement the rest of the team.  The formula has been successful enough to keep me playing on a weekly basis 9 months after release.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

2016-01-30_00004

Rise of the Tomb Raider first appeared late last year on Xbox, but the PC version that I played was released very early this year, so I’m counting it as a 2016 game.  A few years ago, I decided to take the plunge and build a reasonably high-end gaming PC, and Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of the games that makes me not regret that investment.  The PC version is *gorgeous*, and filled with beautiful, sweeping natural environments that possess a liveliness that other games of similar scale often lack.  The game also sports some of the most impressive particle effects I’ve ever seen.  Outside of the graphics, RoTR is just a very well-designed action-adventure game, although in many ways heavily inspired by the aggressive stealth action formula of The Last of Us.  Similar to Naughty Dog’s banner title, it combines elements of stealth, cover-based shooting, platforming, and in situ crafting and resource gathering in a recipe that I thought was far more cohesive and engaging that its inspiration.

The Witness

2016-01-26_00008

Secrets and exploration are a huge draw for me in games, and The Witness ranks in my list because of how well it managed to execute on those aspects.  Featuring a free-roaming tour through a massive island filled with hundreds of puzzles to solve and many secrets to uncover, The Witness became my gaming addiction very early in the year.  Practically all of the puzzles are at their core based on correctly determining how to trace lines through (mostly) simple patterns, but the excellence of The Witness comes from the fact that it employs so many creative ways to modify and reinvent this basic idea across hundreds of puzzles.  Although the island may initially seem to just be window dressing for these labyrinthine challenges, the player quickly learns that the environment is often an integral part of the solutions, which I thought added a sense of wonder and amazement to what may cursorily seem like a very simple puzzle game.

Well that’s it.  I would add some honorable mentions are Virginia and Star Fox Zero, both games I also really liked this year.  Looking forward, there’s a lot of titles in 2017 that I’m excited for, including Resident Evil 7, Gravity Rush 2, Breath of the Wild, Nier Automata, and Horizon: Zero Dawn.  I have a dreadful feeling that I’m not going to get to play nearly as many of those as I want, though.  And of course, I also want to get back to the games I missed above.  We’ll see how things go.  I hope everyone has a great 2017!

Virginia!

Virginia Header 2.png

We live in an age where so many games are beginning to appear under the derisive moniker of “walking simulator”, and I think I may have finally found one that really clicks with me in a big way.  I can’t say there’s much gameplay to Virginia.  And what I mean by that is that there’s not much challenge presented to the player that needs be overcome to progress.  Rather, the game takes place across a number of relatively rapid-fire scenes that largely advance with little input from the player.  Sometimes, all you’re given is a small area to explore with the scene ending when the player has found something to trigger the next major event in the story.  But often, the player isn’t even given full control of the main character, and instead just sees parts of the story acted out in front of her eyes.  The game doesn’t even do the Telltale thing of creating the illusion that player choice actually has an impact on the proceeding events.  It’s essentially just a first-person movie which frequently requires a little bit of interaction on the player’s part.

Virginia 2.jpg

I don’t hate this type of game, the kind that focuses so heavily on narrative that it doesn’t offer many traditional gameplay hooks.  But I do think with no real complex gameplay present, it falls entirely on the story of Virginia to make the game successful.  If that part isn’t more than just good, then, well, the game as a whole simply isn’t worthwhile.  I’m happy to say that Virginia left a big impression on me in this regard.  Despite being clearly derivative of two major inspirations, The X-Files and Twin Peaks, I felt the story it had to tell was both sincere and freshly intriguing.  

Virginia 1.jpg

Virginia tells the story of recently inducted FBI agent Anne Tarver, who has been assigned by her superiors under dubious motives to partner with and monitor fellow agent Maria Halperin.  As I mentioned above, Virginia has a clear influence from The X-Files, and fans of that show will immediately see the Mulder-Scully relationship as prototypical of that of Maria and Anne.  On their first joint assignment, the partners set out to the city of Kingdom, Virginia to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a local teenager.  The mystery in Kingdom more prominently features the game’s Twin Peaks influence, as Anne begins experiencing otherworldly visions that strongly evoke the classic ‘90s TV series.  

But despite the investigation in Kingdom being the catalyst for the story, I felt there was far more emphasis placed on the developing relationship between Anne and Maria, or at least that was the side of the story that I found more interesting.  I don’t want to delve too far into it, as I don’t want to spoil anything, but I felt that Anne’s internal struggle across the breadth of the proceedings gave way to a character arc that was far more poignant and sincere than is typical of video game protagonists.  Most games tend to tell grandiose tales of global salvation or extraordinary events, but Virginia’s more personal focus makes for something that has far more heart and feeling.

Virginia 3.jpg

The effectiveness of Virginia’s narrative resonance is heavily based in its rapid pacing of scenes and events.  Rarely does a particular scene last for more than a handful of minutes.  The speed at which the story moves means that there are no lulls or dips, and, instead, I feel like the player just gets a very concentrated experience that leaves a big emotional impression.  The swift movement of the narrative is accomplished with two bold storytelling techniques that I think most players will find peculiar of Virginia.  The first is that the experience is entirely non-verbal.  No words are ever spoken in the game.  Instead, the player must rely mostly on body language and context to understand the unfolding events.  The results are that the game doesn’t get bogged down in lengthy dialogue sequences, but it leaves many aspects of the story to the player’s inference.  I think the latter consequence, however, is also a favorable part of the experience, since it drives a sense of curiosity and wonder.

Virginia 4.jpg

The second major effect employed by the game are the jump cuts between scenes that were heavily discussed around the game’s release due to their technically impressive nature.  Transitions between scenes are immediate and seamless.  For instance, one moment you’ll be in your office at the FBI, the next moment you’ll be in a car driving through the countryside.  This is pretty unique in gaming, since transitions between environments usually require at least a short loading screen, while in Virginia the change is instantaneous.  This facilitates the fleet pacing that I think was essential to this game’s success.

Virginia only took me ~2 hours to beat (as counted by Steam), but I personally didn’t mind its brevity.  I think being able to finish the game without needing to take breaks was beneficial to the overall experience.  Virginia is ultimately one of those games that walks the fine line between being pretentious and profound, and I think for the most part it doesn’t falter on this point.  The non-verbal, expeditious story leaves a lot on the player to try to understand on their own, but I think it’s effective and creates a level of wonderment and sentimentality that I greatly enjoyed.

Halloween Gaming: Until Dawn: Rush of Blood

Until Dawn Rush of Blood TMU Header.png

This past week, I tried something a little different for my Halloween Gaming series.  I was able to try VR for the first time on the new Playstation VR headset from Sony.  When I say “for the first time”, I’m not including the old Nintendo Virtual Boy, which I played a ton after I was able to snag one for cheap when it was discontinued.  You want to know something weird?  The first time I put on the PSVR headset, I immediately recognized that it smelled like my old Virtual Boy did.  I think it’s the foam around the eyepieces (the part that makes contact with the player’s face) that gives the two such similar odors.

Anyway, weird Virtual Boy sense memories aside, one of the PSVR games that I’ve been most eager to try is the spinoff to last year’s excellent PS4 horror title, Until Dawn.  Until Dawn was one of the highlights of 2015 for me, and I had a great time writing about it for last year’s Halloween Gaming series.  While I’ve been really hoping to see the game get a proper sequel, the announcement of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, an arcade-action spinoff of the original Until Dawn’s story, naturally had my interests piqued.

I don’t know if I can think of two games more different than the original Until Dawn and its spin-off, Rush of Blood.  Rush of Blood replaces the somber tone, slow pacing, and nuanced character development of its progenitor with a bombastic on-rails action experience.  The story of Rush of Blood is somewhat abstract and obtuse, but from what I can gather, the game is essentially a nightmare sequence being had by one of the original story’s cast members.  It’s never said specifically which character, but those who have seen Until Dawn all the way through should be able to figure out which one.

Rush of Blood 1.jpg

The game starts with the player character entering an eerily destitute amusement park where a carnival barker implores him to take a ride on a rollercoaster that was once the site’s star attraction. This is one of those rides where the attendees are given toy guns to shoot at targets that line the sides of the tracks, and so it serves as an interesting tutorial for what’s to come.  As the ride nears its conclusion, the psychopath from Until Dawn suddenly appears and switches the rails so that the player is separated from the barker and enters the park’s abandoned haunted house, where the psychopath leads a gang of clowns in an ambush.  From then on out, the player is facing live targets whose ranks are largely composed of standard nightmare fuel such as clowns, mannequins, spiders, and a particular gang of beasties that Until Dawn fans will immediately recognize.  Since the game takes place in a nightmare or a hallucination or whatever it is, the ride becomes increasingly surreal and dangerous as it begins to wind through locations that are clearly beyond the limits of the park, such as a slaughterhouse, a haunted hotel, and an abandoned mine.  

Until Dawn™_ Rush of Blood_20161019201309.jpg

Rush of Blood is pretty much a standard House of the Dead-style light gun shooter, outside of the VR hook.  The player has two guns which can be aimed independently with two different Playstation Move controllers.  The standard DualShock 4 gamepad can also be used as a motion controller in lieu of the Move wands, but in this mode of play, the two guns are always pointed at the same target (since there is only one controller being used).  The action side of the gameplay is reasonably competent, although aiming and reloading two guns simultaneously can get a bit hairy sometimes.  There were times when I was being rushed by large groups of enemies that I had trouble keeping track of which gun needed to be reloaded, and it resulted in a lot of spastic frustration as the monsters just overwhelmed me.  I suppose you could chalk these moments up to my poor skill.  The game definitely wants you to replay each of its seven chapters to the point of mastering them.  True to the game’s arcade roots, there’s a secondary focus on maximizing score through playing at an expert level, and each chapter features numerous branching paths which encourage replay.

Until Dawn™_ Rush of Blood_20161022115243.jpg

Since the advantage that VR brings to gaming is a greatly increased level of immersion, horror games are something that could hypothetically benefit enormously from the technology.  Rush of Blood is half horror game/half arcade-action, so it’s a bit of an unusual sample for what this new hardware can do for the horror genre.  Regardless, I think the VR aspect of the game did manage to enhance the title’s atmosphere and immersion.  I think it’s the head tracking that really does it.  There were several moments when I turned my head to the left or right or maybe upwards and caught a glimpse of something spooky that I wasn’t aware was there before.  When you move your real-life head and realize that something was lurking just right outside of your own eyes’ field of view, it’s actually quite creepy and unsettling.  

Outside of atmosphere and the creep-factor, Rush of Blood uses a lot of jump scares.  Cheap jump scares at that.  And they’re usually telegraphed in the most obvious ways.  Like, the lights will go off and you just know that something’s going to be standing right in front of you making loud noises when they flip back on.  In general, a lot of stuff yells in your face in this game.  The first time it happened, I found I was actually kind of fascinated by it, because I reflexively leaned away in my chair, since it was standing right next to me.  I would never actually move my body away from something on a TV screen.  I was impressed by how the immersion of VR was able to provoke such a “realistic” reaction out of me.

Until Dawn™_ Rush of Blood_20161019202556.jpg

Unfortunately, after the initial excitement, the jump scares wore thin pretty quickly.  Like I said, there’s a fair few things in this game which just pop up and scream right into your face, and it’s really unpleasant after the initial novelty.  To mitigate the obnoxiousness of it all, I actually decided to unplug the earbuds from the VR headset and just listen to the game audio off the TV, so the jump scares wouldn’t be so overwhelming.  Jump scares are one of the simplest and oldest methods that horror games have used to startle the player and create tension.  Some would argue that they are a really lazy way of creating cheap scares, but I would specifically argue they have no place in VR, especially to the extent that Rush of Blood likes to use them, simply because they’re just so aggravatingly unpleasant.

Ultimately, I thought Rush of Blood was a fun time.  I definitely do have some frustrations with it, such as the aforementioned issue with jump scares.  In addition, the game has seven chapters, but will only take about two hours to beat, and the finale is unfortunately rather anti-climactic.  But to be fair, the game is only $20 (not including the steep cost of the VR headset, of course), which helps me forgive many of its stumbling points.  Beyond those issues I have with it, it is suitably kooky and spooky for a game that is essentially a launch title for a whole new type of gaming experience.  And most importantly, it impresses me enough to leave me excited to see how future VR horror games will take advantage of the technology.

Halloween Gaming: Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion

Spooky's Jump Scare Mansion.png

Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion by Lag Studios is the next game on my Halloween playlist.  As an avid enthusiast of history, you, the player, decide to embark on a mission to explore a local abandoned mansion whose past is shrouded in mystery.  Upon entering the abode, you are greeted by the gal ghost Spooky, who challenges you to survive all 1000 rooms of her haunted lair.

SJSM 7.png

The layout of the massive titular mansion is procedurally generated.  The player is tasked with overcoming 1000 rooms in the house, and a little counter exists at the top of the screen which keeps track of progress.  The house is mostly composed of a limited set of pre-designed rooms which are put together in a random sequence that changes each time the player starts up the game.  Because there’s a much smaller number of these pre-made rooms than the 1000 total, you’ll see a lot of them repeated over and over again across the course of the game.  There are certain specific rooms, however, that always appear at the same spot in the overall sequence.  These rooms are usually considerably more elaborate than the others and serve to give some story to the game and usually set up the appearance of a new monstrous resident of the mansion.

SJSM 6.png

The monsters of the game, called specimens, are the source of the adventure’s challenge, along with the player’s nerve to move forward.  When specimens appear, they give chase to the main character through the randomized rooms of the mansion.  It’s not the most complex game, and often it is pretty easy to outrun the various specters.  They doggedly pursue you from room to room, but will stop after predetermined points.  Things get a little more complicated later in the game, as there are certain tricks the player needs to figure out to escape the more advanced specimens.  Eventually, the player also gets a weapon of dubious effectiveness.

The story in SJSM is rather minimal and exists purely to provide flavor to the haunted adventure.  The Jump Scare Mansion and its mistress possess a mish-mash of chilling horrors and flippant comedy.  Despite being home to some truly evil supernatural entities, the mansion sometimes feels like an elaborate practical joke.  Spooky comes off like a juvenile prankster who has assembled the horrific deathtrap not out of prime malevolence, but more for her own dark yet frivolous amusement.  In addition to the more elaborate story-centric rooms I described above, little snippets of story tend to emerge here and there.  The player can find bits of text, like notes left behind by other foolish trespassers, and occasionally, Spooky, herself, will come out to interact with the player for a short bit.  But otherwise, there’s not much of grandiose plot behind the game.  All of these little story bits exist merely to enhance the mood and atmosphere.

SJSM 1.png

Despite the fact that the game is built from a fairly small set of simple rooms strung together by procedural generation, I felt like it still managed to be highly effective at creating atmosphere and tension.  Much of this was due to how the game continually subverted my expectations.  For the first several rooms, you are faced only with goofy pop-out haunted house scares, until you meet the first specimen, a fairly uninspired creature which only slowly gives chase.  But from then on out, the specimens become increasingly disturbing, and eventually the game began to challenge the “rules” by which I thought it worked.  There were times I felt like I was safe, only to be desperately alarmed to find out otherwise.  Eventually, even during the down periods in which there were no monsters present, I felt constantly uneasy, because I realized anything could happen at anytime.  By keeping the player on their toes in this way, the designers were able to create a level of tension and suspense that I felt was highly effective.

It’s often said that the fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all.  It might be a trite saying, but I find that it is especially true with games.  I’ve noticed in SJSM that the scariest parts of the game are when there are no active threats against the player.  It was those times when there was nothing chasing me that I began to psyche myself out while waiting for the next monster to dreadfully appear.  When the monsters finally did present themselves, I found my stress rapidly dropped off, since I could more rationally assess the threat.

SJSM3.png

I often find people say that video games can’t be scary, because the player can just reset to the last save point if they die, and thus there is no real danger to be fearful.  That point isn’t really wrong, but I think it misses a huge element of video game horror.  The true horror of video games, like the true horror of any fiction, comes from withinside the player, themselves.  It’s the dreadful anticipation of what might be lying around the next corner, the internal struggle of the player against their own imagination of the frights to come, that makes us terrified when we otherwise have no rational reason to be.  In reality, I think the monsters are the least scary part of any horror game.  Rather, it’s the atmosphere which creates true tension and dread in these games.

Despite its simplistic gameplay and primitive Doom-like graphics, I found Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion to be a great horror game.  It’s not the most elaborate game, but the setting and atmosphere really make up for it.  I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet, which is that the game is free on Steam.  And with such unsophisticated graphics, it’ll run on even the most basic PCs, so I encourage everyone whose interest I might have piqued to give the game a try.  

Halloween Gaming: Oxenfree

Oxenfree TMU Header.png

October rolls around once again, which means it’s time to get into the Halloween spirit.  For the past couple years, I’ve tried to spend the duration of the spooky season festively writing about horror games.  Last year, in particular, I had a fun time with it, and hopefully this year will be just as successful.  For those who missed those old posts and might be curious, I’ve collected all of the previous years’ essays on this page.  First up this time is Oxenfree, a narrative adventure game released earlier this year.

Oxenfree is at its core a ghost story in which a group of teens set out for a night of unsupervised revelry on the beaches of the mostly deserted Edwards Island.  During the course of the night’s events, the teens test out a local urban legend, and, unsurprisingly to the audience, the proceedings go terribly awry.  The group becomes trapped on the island while being harrowed and tormented by reality-bending paranormal entities from the island’s apocryphal past.

20160925181314_1.jpg

The struggle of a group of teenagers against an overpowering and inescapable threat makes Oxenfree somewhat similar to last year’s teen slasher title, Until Dawn. But unlike the shifting perspectives of Until Dawn, the player only controls one central character, Alex, in Oxenfree.  Alex is joined by four other protagonists, the most important of whom is Jonas, her new step-brother that she met immediately before the opening of the story. In addition to Jonas, she is accompanied by childhood friend Ren, slacker Nona, and Clarissa, the ex-girlfriend of Alex’s tragically deceased brother, Michael.  Alex’s growing relationship with Jonas and the tension that exists between her and Clarissa are the biggest focus of her character arc.

Oxenfree could maybe best be described as one of the much dreaded “walking simulators,” although, as this genre has started to grow significantly in the past years, I seriously wish a better common term for it would take hold.  Essentially, Oxenfree is more focused on story, dialogue, and exploring characters than on providing a solid challenge to the player.  Conversations are a particularly strong focus of the game.

The game’s conversation system is relatively simple, but also fairly versatile.  When Alex can chime in during exchanges, three text bubbles will pop up above her head, each with a potential reaction the player can select.  The player can also always choose to ignore these text bubbles, in which case Alex will stay silent.  Furthermore, the timing of the reply is also important, since Alex can interrupt other characters while they’re talking.  And of course, the game features branching dialogue based on the choices the player makes, although I’ve only given this game one playthrough, so I can’t really speak to how drastically the conversations can differ.

20160925175955_1.jpg

As the teens progress in their quest to escape the island, the unseen ghostly forces vie to impede their progress.  At certain points in the story, the ghosts trap Alex and company in time loops during which unearthly and threatening paranormal events occur.  Escaping these time loops requires a light (and I mean very light) amount of puzzle solving, and, after the conversation system, serves as the second pillar of Oxenfree’s gameplay.  These time loops, I think, were meant to add an element of a more traditional gameplay style, but they aren’t really much of a challenge.  The solutions are all very simple and more often than not are repeated in later segments.  It’s clear that the designers of the game were far more interested in developing out their branching conversation system than they were in adding these more traditional adventure game segments that require puzzle solving.

Horror is a highly subjective, hit-or-miss sort of thing.  What’s scary to me might not be scary to you, and vice versa.  I try to keep that in mind when assessing stuff like this.  Regardless, I don’t really think anyone would find Oxenfree all that scary.  There are some freaky sequences, but I don’t think the story really develops much tension.  Despite some vain attempts to make the player think otherwise, the teens are never really in “true” danger, or at least it didn’t seem that way during my playthrough.  It’s not like in Until Dawn where the wrong move can have one of the central characters eliminated for the rest of the story.   As a consequence, there’s never really the feeling of dread and apprehension that appears in a good horror game.  

20161002205441_1.jpg

But I’ve always felt that horror fiction can get away with not being scary if the mystery elements of the story make up for it.  A good horror story has twists and turns that keep the audience on their toes till the very end.  Unfortunately, I’m not really sure that Oxenfree executes so well on this point either.  The plot felt very by the numbers, and there really wasn’t much mystery at all to the game.  Key story points, like the identities of the ghosts, are all pretty obvious, and there weren’t really any surprising revelations to be had.  By the end of it, I had a “that was it?” kind of moment.  It really felt like there should have been more here than there was.  

I’m a bit perplexed by Oxenfree.  I don’t mean to come off like I didn’t like the game.  I did enjoy many parts of it.  But since earlier this year, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of positive buzz for this title on various different gaming communities.  Personally, my experience didn’t really leave me feeling like the game was worthy of the praise lavished on it.  I’m left wondering if there’s something here that I just “don’t get” that others do.  You know, I can only ever really speak for myself.  Oxenfree has some branching story paths, so maybe it’s possible that I’ve missed something big, but looking over various online discussions of the game’s story, I doubt that’s the case.  Ultimately, Oxenfree is not really a game that I can personally recommend unqualified to everyone.  However, I did like the game well enough to recommend it to people who resonate strongly with story and conversation-driven games like Firewatch or Telltale’s various series.  It’s not the strongest of that category of games, but on a Steam sale, it’s worth checking out.

 

The Crash Comeback

 

Crash Bandicoot.png

Crash Bandicoot, the one-time face of Playstation, turned 20 this past week.  I’ve always found it curious that the long decline of Sonic the Hedgehog has been a popular topic of discussion, but the corresponding decline in quality of the Crash Bandicoot series has not received nearly the same amount of attention.  I’ve had a few theories as to why this has been the case.  First, Sonic *was* the Genesis.  When most people think of the good times they had with that machine, the Sonic the Hedgehog games are among the first things that enter their mind.  They are a symbol for an entire gaming era.  But I think when most think of the PS1, the experiences that immediately come to mind are titles like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, and Resident Evil.  Even though Crash was generally held up as the mascot of the Playstation, he was not nearly as critical to its success and popularity as Sonic was to the Genesis.  And furthermore, the decline of Sonic is sort of symbolic of the decline of Sega as a whole.  Once a major pillar of gaming, Sega fans have not only had to endure the struggles of one of their favorite characters, but it has corresponded to the waning of Sega’s particular brand of creativity as a whole.

crash-bandicoot-4

While Crash was used by Sony as the mascot of the PS1, Sony never really owned the Crash Bandicoot brand.  Instead, Naughty Dog developed the game for Universal Studios’ game publishing arm (which is now defunct).  When Sony bought Naughty Dog to develop PS2 games, the rights to Crash didn’t go with them.  Instead, Konami worked with Universal to take the series multiplatform, and, similar to his hedgehog counterpart, that’s when trouble started to arise.  Now, after a long stretch of diminishing popularity with less than stellar releases, Crash is in the hands of Activision, who have shown little interest in getting the series back on track.  But I’ve noticed more and more over the past few years, however, there’s been a growing fan community that’s trying to convince Sony to take back the series and do it justice.

I’m a long time Crash Bandicoot fan.  The first game was among the titles I originally received along with the console.  As I’ve discussed before, the PS1 is my favorite console, and, as a result, Crash occupies a special place in my heart.  So, I’ve been in favor of the recent fan push to get Crash returned to the hands of Sony and hopefully start a subsequent return to glory.  It’s a long shot, and I know it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever see a new proper Crash Bandicoot game, but…whatever… you have to support what you love.

Of the original Crash games created and developed by Naughty Dog, I think my favorite would have to be the third game, Crash Bandicoot: Warped (setting aside Crash Team Racing).  I think the time travel plot made for the series’ most creative levels thematically, and while many prefer the levels in Crash 2, I’ve always felt they were a little soulless when compared to the settings that Crash 3 wanders through.  And I’ve also always thought it was an amazing game graphically for the original Playstation.  Crash Bandicoot always had great graphics, especially when it came to animations, but Crash 3 made use of vibrant colors in a way that just made everything pop better.  The final boss fight deserves mention as one of my favorites ever, as Crash faces off against Neo Cortex while also having to avoid getting steamrolled by a parallel duel between his shaman buddy Aku Aku and the evil Uka Uka.

crash-bandicoot-3

I also have to mention Crash Team Racing here, as it may be my favorite kart racer ever.  It’s certainly among my favorite games of all time.  In the arena of kart racers, the Mario Kart series basically sits high above all else from a quality perspective, but there has been a small few number of titles to challenge MK’s crown, and Crash Team Racing is undoubtedly one of them.  I would actually rank it above its N64 counterpart, as I think CTR has more interesting tracks and karts that handle better than the slipperiness of MK64.  I also think CTR just has way better visuals than MK64, but that’s a bit of an unfair comparison, since MK64 came out near the beginning of the N64‘s life, while CTR appeared at the end of the PS1‘s.

The fan movement to resurrect the Crash series hasn’t gone unnoticed by either Sony or Activision.  At E3, Crash was announced to be incorporated into the next Skylanders game, but far more exciting, a remake of the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy is in the works for Playstation 4.  There was also a major cameo by the character this year in a form that I won’t spoil here, but many of you probably know what I’m talking about.  These attempts by Sony to placate the Crash loyals have been incredibly amusing to me.  Most companies just ignore fan demands to revive old, dormant series.  Sony is oddly trying to sideways satisfy them by throwing out a few bones, but not actually doing what fans are requesting, which is an entirely new game.  Presumably, such a thing is on the table if the remakes do well enough, though.

crash-bandicoot-2

But if Sony really were to do a new Crash game, what would that actually be?  Some seem to want a new game developed by Naughty Dog, but I doubt Naughty Dog is up to the task anymore of doing Crash Bandicoot, and I doubt they would want to.  A lot of talent from the Crash and Jak days have moved on from the company, and their current talent pool is more experienced with and seemingly more interested in creating highly linear, story-driven action-adventure titles than making a new 3D character platformer.  In fact, there aren’t really many studios outside of Nintendo that do have such experience anymore, but I can think of a few.  Namely, Sanzaru Games, who did a good job with Sly Cooper 4 on PS3, could be the best match for taking on the task of Crash.  I would also suggest Next Level Games, who did the Luigi’s Mansion sequel on 3DS, could also be a good fit.

And furthermore, what would a new Crash entry even be like?  In its original time, Crash straddled the line between two distinct eras of game design.  Ostensibly, Crash is a 3D platformer, allowing movement along 3 axes.  But unlike other similar releases of the time (like Mario 64, Banjo, and Spyro), Crash was structured much more similarly to 16-bit era games.  While the aforementioned contemporaries featured objective-driven gameplay in open, free-roaming levels,  Crash still had a focus on linear level design that tasked the player with making it from point A (the starting point) to point B (the finish line).  This made it a lot more similar to earlier games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario World than other comparable games of the PS1/N64 era.

Should a new Crash Bandicoot retain the linear-style of the originals, or should it attempt something more advanced, like the free-roaming environments of Mario 64?  My feeling is that most fans, myself included, would rather a new game be true to what Crash was at its peak.  But would this make the game feel antiquated?  Ironically, I actually think that more recent games like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D Land show that linear level design can still be very exciting and modern.

crash-bandicoot-1

Regardless of all these questions, I would definitely like to see Crash make a comeback.  Aside from the fact that I’m a huge fan of the originals, these kind of games just aren’t really made anymore, besides those featuring Mario of course.  And I think more than just being fundamentally fun, 3D platformers served an important function in the gaming world, as they were the gateway through which many young people became passionate about this hobby.  I mean, mobile games are fine and all, but I find mobile gaming to be a very limited representation of what games can be as a form of creative art and experience, and now more than ever, we need projects like Crash Bandicoot and Yooka-Laylee to capture the imaginations of young gamers who are otherwise glued to games on their phones and tablets.  In a world saturated with shooters and checklist-driven open world games, I really hope the vibrancy and inspiration of these carefree mascot characters can thrive again.

Inside!

TMU Inside Header

For those who have played Limbo, Inside is immediately familiar.  The fundamentals of the two games are essentially identical: a dark side-scrolling puzzle game where a lone boy embarks into a dark world filled with mystery and danger.  From a technical perspective, Inside looks quite a bit more polished than the simplistic silhouetted sprites and backgrounds of Limbo.  And while Limbo was a purely black and white experience, Inside features actual color, most notably the bright red shirt identifying the protagonist.  But while Inside is a significant visual advancement over Limbo, the game always feels like the successor to Limbo.  The atmospheres of both Inside and Limbo each share a unique shade of foreboding, gloom, strangeness, and hostility that mark them as brethren.

Both of these young protagonists face a long journey through an unreal and corrupted world that lies before them.  However, the settings of Limbo and Inside are actually quite different.  Limbo is essentially a dark fantasy, an evil fairy tale, that takes place in a living nightmare that a lone boy must overcome to find his lost sister.  But while Limbo skews toward the preternatural, Inside is more of a twisted science fiction tale that plays heavily on dystopian and apocalyptic themes.  The game begins with the central character of Inside making his way through a dreary, decimated landscape while he is hunted by a band of men and dogs out to kill him.  Eventually, he makes his way into a bastion of civilization amidst the (possibly) apocalyptic countryside, where the player comes to discover increasingly dark and disturbing revelations about this perverse future.

The controls of each game are incredibly simple, the boy can more left or right, jump, or grab and move objects.  Yet from these very rudimentary actions, the designers do a good job of crafting puzzles that stay interesting across the course of the game.  Like Limbo, the puzzles in Inside are all obstacles that make sense in the context of their environment.  Usually the goal the player is faced with is something relatively mundane like reaching a ledge, hiding from patrolling enemies, or crossing precarious passages.  Safely overcoming these obstacles requires observation of the environment and understanding the interactions available to the player at that particular moment.  

20160721201621_1.jpg

One common observation/criticism of Limbo was that there was a heavy emphasis on trial and error.  That is to say that often the player wouldn’t be aware a threat was present unless they had already triggered it once and died.  Some people disliked this, some were okay with it.  Personally, I didn’t mind.  The seemingly out-of-nowhere deaths that would often befall the poor boy actually created a long string of startling and often farcical surprises in Limbo.  With Inside, I never really felt the same trial and error tension of Limbo.  Dangers and threats are often very obvious, and the player is given plenty of time to react to them, which meant that the sudden deaths of Limbo were far, far less common.  As someone who wasn’t bothered by this element of Limbo, I’m rather neutral on the lack of it in Inside.

A major problem I know I and many others had with Limbo is that the first hour of play is the highlight of that game, with everything else feeling downhill from there.  I felt Inside had a much better arc, as the game slowly ramped up the weirdness and bewilderment factor until the incredible and bizarre climax.  There is a great deal of intriguing dystopian world-building that is unraveled over the course of Inside.  And as far as the final act of the game went, I would never in a million years have seen that coming.  Because the starting premises were so similar, I thought Inside was going to end in a similar fashion to Limbo, but I was thrown a complete curveball.  If the name “Inside” seems odd for this game, it will entirely make sense by the game’s finale.  

Although… I can’t say that I didn’t immediately feel some disappointment with Inside’s final scene and resolution.  I walked away from the game with way more questions than answers, and I wanted a little more closure and understanding of what had just transpired after the game’s unforgettable final act.  Inside, like Limbo before it, is primarily a game that tells the story of its world through fine details left in the game’s environments.  Nothing is explicitly told to the player, but instead close observation of details in each scene is required. There’s nothing wrong with this storytelling technique I guess, but I found the world and events of Inside to be so intriguing and the finale to be so bizarre that I really wanted more answers than I got.  

20160710145522_1.jpg

Limbo has a similarly opaque story, but I don’t think it really bothered me as much.  I think it was because the world of Limbo was more like a living nightmare, and nightmares by their very nature lack rhyme or reason.  I think that’s why I was fine being confused and unsure of the plot to Limbo.  Inside, on the other hand, makes evident that there’s a well thought-out dystopian world that lies beyond the view of the player, and the hints and teases of this world-building left me keen to learn more.

A little deterred by the ambiguity of the ending, I took to YouTube to find some fan theories for the game, of which there are many.  For as disappointed as I initially was, I really think watching these fan theories helped me make peace with the game.  A lot of details and facts were pointed out by the videos that I completely missed or didn’t really grasp the significance of during my playthrough.  I actually reflect much more positively on the game now than I did immediately after closing the final scene.

But is it good that I had to go seek outside sources to help me come to grips with the game?  Is it a mark of poor storytelling that I needed to look for information outside of the game itself to be satisfied with Inside?  My knee jerk reaction says yes, a game’s story should be self-contained enough that any player can reasonably appreciate it without needing to look to external sources to fill in the blanks.  But the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that this is true.  The truth is that it’s a lot of fun to read and listen to fan theories and to use those theories to come up with your own ideas and conclusions.  The Dark Souls series has been the quintessential example of this sort of obscure, enigmatic storytelling and has spawned a slew of popular and interesting fan output.  I could see how obscurity could easily become a crutch to avoid creating well-crafted stories, but examples like Dark Souls and Inside show that in the right hands it requires even more thought and planning than stories with explicit plot details.

20160722172825_1.jpg

Inside is a cool game.  While it’s easy to look at it as just a “better Limbo”, I feel that would be underselling quite a bit.  It might not have the novelty of Limbo, but the puzzle design, world-building, and general atmosphere and tension are far better crafted in a way that is a step above the improvements that normally occur when going from a predecessor to its sequel.  Fans of Limbo really shouldn’t miss out on Inside, and for those that have never played Limbo and are on the fence about Inside, I definitely recommend giving it a try when a Steam sale comes around.  

 

%d bloggers like this: